AN: Well, we're officially at Hogwarts, which means I finally got the story where I wanted it to be. And just think, it's only a year and 100k words late! …God, I suck at estimates, I'd make a horrible goblin.

On a more serious note, there's a conjoined set of issues I need to address. First is that this story will be dealing with more mature things as time goes on (the rating going from Teen to Mature shortly after the end of this school year) while the second is that I'm not going to get into the weeds of everything that's tangentially related to issues that accompany that shift. The world is still every bit as real and complex as the one you and I have to contend with, there are just times where they're not like each other at all, and thus our issues have no business being dragged into the story.

Where there is some overlap, I still may not go into things as far as people would like, especially when it comes to subjects like what happens in this chapter. In plain language: I'm not going to give you "the Talk" or preach about how you should behave. As far as I'm concerned, you're adults and that's on you to handle.

I'm aware though that children are free to read what I write, and thus am sensitive to parental concerns about such things. That's why every time I've even come close to bumping up against that invisible line I've run it by an acquaintance with young teenagers in order to get their opinion of how it's presented. So far everything's passed inspection relatively decently (though less so in this instance because I'm stubborn about what I will not do) but if you're a parent whose young people are reading this and are concerned about such things, feel free to let me know and I can give you a heads up ahead of time.

Anyway, let's get going.

.o0O0o.

Waves of laden clouds rolled in to blot out every light in the sky, leaving only the thin crescent blade of the moon to stubbornly fight against them in vain. It wasn't the awe-inspiring sight into the heavens that one usually came to the Astronomy Tower to see but he'd never been one to shun the depressing reality of life like everyone else, and the cold, impersonal forces of the universe wouldn't have cared either way. It wasn't lofty lights above he'd come here to see anyway but the flickering flames that huddled at Hogsmeade.

Near a score of little lanterns outfitted the feeble flotilla that waited on the lake's far shoreline for their passengers, though the forested area around it gave no sign where the larger lantern was that lit the First Years' way down to them. Easier to spot were the lights marking out the carriages slowly slithering like a sinuous snake up from the secluded station, but they only held a lesser interest to him. It was a craving for what youngest students unknowingly enjoyed that drew him here year after year, and it was something he thought he'd never have again.

Severus had often heard it said that youth was wasted on the young, and though it was true, it wasn't their age he envied. Age was nothing but a detriment; a limiting factor in what you could do on your own and an excuse people gave for your ignorance. The true gift the young possessed wasn't their age, or the talent to endlessly annoy others, it was the uncharted course of their lives and their ability to influence it.

Well before they got to be his age though those students would find themselves enslaved to choices they'd made years before, just as he was bound to them now. Every reaction they had to the ever-changing world around them would fuel choices they'd make without ever sparing a thought as to what the consequences of their actions might be. Each of those choices though, no matter how small, would only serve to narrow the scope of their lives and lock them into behaviors that would dictate how the rest of their lives would unfold.

'It's our inevitable fate,' Severus thought as he watched those who unknowingly approached their doom. 'We forge the chains that bind us and then bitterly complain that life's not fair when all it does is make us wear them.'

His mind was spared from delving too far into the past when the muffled grunts and stifled groans making their way up the stairs anchored him to the present. There'd be plenty of time for reflection later.

"Ah, there you are, Severus," Dumbledore smiled as he hobbled towards him, still in the drab gray robe he'd taken to wearing. How the man managed to seem jovially jubilant at the intense weight of the chains his life had forged for himself Severus would never know.

"We should be going if we want to be seated before the First Years arrive," the headmaster noted. "I always thought it made for a more enjoyable experience for them to see us all there, don't you think?"

"I won't be attending," he informed the other man, confident that his absence would do more to improve the event than anything else he could do, though the students' enjoyment of it was the least of his concerns.

"The Welcoming Feast–," Dumbledore started.

"–Is hardly that this year," Severus finished for him.

"True," the man admitted after a moment. "But there's always the Sorting to consider," the man maintained.

"Anyone that's Sorted into Slytherin is likely to know who I am already," he pointed out to the headmaster. "Anyone who doesn't know will undoubtedly hear of me before the night is out. The older students are useful for something, after all, even if they're in other Houses."

"That still leaves the not-inconsiderable task of familiarizing yourself with them," Albus added smoothly, "but I suppose you still have many years left to get to know them well."

He let the comment go unanswered but additional tension settled in his shoulders nonetheless.

"I suppose one person more or less won't make much of a difference at this point," the older man said after a moment. "Your absence may be noted but you'll hardly be the only one; Professor McGonagall informed me that Madam Pince won't be attending either. It seems she'd inadvertently Stunned herself somehow and was lying on the Library floor when Minerva found her, so she's decided to call it an early night."

"I think I'll do the same," Severus said, not caring for a minute if the man thought he meant to Stun himself, though truth be told what he'd planned wasn't too far off.

"Ah," Dumbledore said happily, "then I won't take up any more of your night. I've still got to greet our new eager young minds. Have a good night, Severus," the man said as he started walking away.

"And you, headmaster," he returned by rote, listening intently for the man's hobbled steps and muffled groans to completely disappear as he descended below.

Once he was gone, Severus closed his eyes and briefly delved into the recent bit of tension to try and clear his mind. The last thing wanted to do is get to know any of the wretched youngsters below but the man was right, as far as that went. The prior links of his self-forged chain would behaviorally bind him to remain at Hogwarts for all those years, but how much of that would survive the year?

The tension the old man had added seemed to melt when he considered what might happen if Albus was found guilty of taking those funds from the Potter boy and perhaps forced to leave the castle forever. It seemed an unlikely course for events to take, but if it did, would Severus finally be free? It wasn't as if he could fulfill his role as spy and double-agent if the person he was spying on – and working for – was no longer there, so perhaps there was a chance to change his life short of a return to the obliviousness of youth after all.

But even with Dumbledore gone, what kind of freedom would that be for him? His life had been a hollow one since the end of his Fifth Year, so even with no reason to remain at Hogwarts what was there for him outside of it? He'd still be prone to the same behaviors that led him to be a prisoner here in the first place, but doing anything other than what he'd always done would at least provide the opportunity for something new.

In the end, Severus supposed that an uncertain future might be the best of all possible ones he could have. The blissfully blank vision of an unscripted life proved a distant enough thought that it allowed him to empty his mind and capture the malignant melancholy of vaporous thoughts that whirled about him for later Occlumentic distillation. His thoughts contained, Severus basked in the formless oblivion and for a moment enjoyed the closest thing approaching peace that could be found in an uncaring world.

From the depths of his mind a bloodless specter came forth to hurl him back to the hard reality of the high stone tower. The Dark Lord was still at large. Lucius's political scheming, Albus's sudden reversal of fortune, and how they'd both left him fighting to be free from it had made the prospect appealing enough to overshadow the yawning abyss of what had always lain before him.

Severus could strive all he wished to be free from everyone else, he'd always be bound to him. Even if he did find himself in the unlikely Dumbledore-free future he'd still have that to face, and possibly on his own. He pushed away from the castellations and turned to make his way back to the dungeons, hopefully without seeing anyone.

.o0O0o.

The wriggling worm-like feeling of worry put his stomach on edge and Harry found it hard not to spend the carriage ride hanging out the window to find out what was going on at the castle. There had to be some reason Hagrid wasn't at the station besides him being fired, though he for one couldn't think of what it could be. Hermione's idea of potentially-rotating escort duties didn't make much headway when Ron had never heard of it, and neither of them could imagine Snape taking part in it without trying to drown everyone.

And who'd be better at welcoming everyone to Hogwarts than Hagrid? It was his favorite place in the world, and though his choice of pets might be off, Hagrid himself was like a teddy bear the size of a building. Passing through the winged boar-topped gates and seeing Hagrid's hut still on the grounds with a bit of a glow inside lowered his worry down to only a mild concern because he didn't think they'd let him keep living there if they'd actually fired him.

Light spilled out of the castle's great double doors as students left the line of horse-less horse-drawn carriages to trickle inside past Professor McGonagall. The feeling that she knew everything wrong you'd ever done wasn't helped when you saw her singling some students out for a word before they were allowed inside. The continued presence of McGonagall seemed incontrovertible proof to Hermione that his worries over Hagrid were overblown and he finally had to admit that she was probably right.

"Mister Potter, Miss Granger," their head of house said, eyeing them over her glasses and crooking her finger at them as Wood moved away, briefly making him wonder if a rule had been made against being boyfriend-and-girlfriend while they were on the train.

'I really have to stop doing that,' Harry decided as he pushed those thoughts away. 'I haven't done anything wrong to feel guilty about.'

"Yes, Professor?" Hermione asked curiously when they approached.

"Madam Pomfrey needs to see you both in the Hospital Wing after dinner," she informed them, raising several questions to mind.

"Why?" Ron asked before he could, clearly wondering why they'd been singled out.

"That is none of your concern, Mister Weasley," McGonagall said briskly before continuing on in a lowered voice. "The password to Gryffindor Tower is 'wattlebird,' in case you need it. Miss Williams–!" she called over their shoulders afterwards, effectively dismissing them. "I need a word with you about your schedule…"

"What was that about?" Ron asked as they walked inside.

All Harry could do to that was shrug. He supposed that some of what had happened during the summer might've made the nurse want to see him, but why involve Hermione and not Ron? Was this one of those boyfriend-and-girlfriend things or was it two different things, each involving one of them, with both having nothing to do with Ron?

A low murmur greeted them as they entered the great hall and despite everything, with the candles floating above them, all the other people around him, and the stars fighting through the clouds on the bewitched ceiling to twinkle down at them, Harry felt good to be back. It was almost like the long, uncomfortable summer had been washed away from him. It felt like starting over again scrubbed clean.

As they moved to the Gryffindor table to find their seats though he couldn't help but notice that several girls were glancing over at them before whispering to their neighbors. It gave him the uncomfortable feeling of being talked about. It also made him remember the embarrassing night at the Burrow when Fred and George mentioned girls who might like him, and it made him wonder if things had always been this way and he just never noticed.

That made him doubly uncomfortable coming so soon after the freshly scrubbed bit. Either way, he didn't like it and felt relieved to sit down and be blocked from most people's view, though sitting next to Hermione did help take his mind off it too. Sitting across from them, Ron seemed more interested in something else.

"It's a bit odd, innit?" he asked, angling his empty pewter plate up at them.

Harry looked at him curiously for a moment, wondering what was odd about it.

"They're not going to start the feast before the First Years arrive, Ronald," Hermione chided him for his presumed selfishness.

"I'm not talking about food. You don't use your eyes, do you?" their friend retorted in return, echoing the Hermione of yesteryear. "They're grey!" Ron said, giving his plate a little shake.

That took his girlfriend aback, even before she could say anything. Harry didn't think he was remembering things wrong but he didn't remember Hogwarts having silvery plates. Looking up the line of other students, he could see a few of the older ones looking at their plates curiously too. He'd never really paid attention to them before, but hadn't they always been–

"–Gold," Hermione said as she examined her own plate before continuing conspiratorially. "The I.C.W. must've taken them when they were here to look for the Sorcerer's Stone," she whispered, obviously still used to keeping the issue quiet in public.

"You think they could've left the plates," their friend maintained, for some reason giving Harry the image of Mrs. Weasley fussing over her favorite china pattern.

"I think they'd be taking everything with a hint of gold on it, just to be sure," she said seriously, still in her hushed tone.

"It's not exactly a secret anymore, Hermione," Harry told his girlfriend with a grin, only to have that grin wiped away when something far more worrying occurred to him. "Do you think they took all the Snitches?" he asked, drawing an affronted look from Ron.

"I doubt it'll impact Quidditch, unless the gold scare is far wider than it seems," she replied with a critically furrowed brow. "Madam Hooch probably just had to order new ones."

That made Ron look better – but then something else popped in his mind that made him grin like one of the twins.

"If we tell them about it," he said in his own conspiratorial hush, "you think they'd come and take Percy's prefect badge from him? That's got gold on it."

That got a laugh, though with Hermione it took the form of a pair of rolled eyes.

Everyone in the great hall went silent when the double doors opened again and Professor McGonagall led in a disordered line of First Years. Through the forest of pointed black Hogwarts hats, Harry caught a glimpse of Ginny's vivid Weasley hair next to a pale blonde that had to be Luna. It was almost impossible to see them when they spread out in front of the raised head table but as McGonagall went off to retrieve the Sorting Hat, something strange in the background caught his attention.

There was a little grey man sitting in Dumbledore's seat.

Closer inspection though showed that it actually was Dumbledore. He had the same half-moon spectacles and oddly broken nose, though he didn't have his pointed hat and his hair seemed a little more flyaway than it had before, which gave him a much less polished look – but it was definitely him. The biggest change though was the man's robes, they looked about as unDumbledore-like as they could get, almost as if he'd taken to wearing those milky-grey clothes Aunt Petunia had wanted him to wear before he'd gotten his Hogwarts letter.

Harry supposed he'd been so bland that his eyes had skipped right over him before now. It gave him an odd feeling having to be in the same room as the man but it wasn't like they'd ever interacted that often. Giving the head table a quick once over as the aged and patched Sorting Hat twitched upright on its stool, he also found something else he didn't like.

"Hagrid's not up there," he told the others quietly, ignoring the Sorting Hat's song.

"You don't reckon he's ill, do you?" Ron asked, craning his neck to get a better look.

"Even someone as hearty as Hagrid has to get sick every once in a while," Hermione tentatively agreed, finally giving a little credence to his concern from before.

"It'd take more than the sniffles to keep him from the boats and the Sorting though," Harry maintained. "And if he's sick, Madam Pomfrey should've been able to mend him in a heartbeat – unless it was something serious," he added, remembering the three days he'd spent in the hospital wing at the end of last term.

"Then it's a good thing we're going there as soon as we're done here," Hermione said decisively, in a worrying-about-this-now-isn't-going-to-help-anything kind of way.

"Forget about Hagrid," Ron grinned like Christmas had come early. "Snape's gone too!"

That got them all standing up as much as they could while still being considered sitting and craning their necks to see the loathsome potions master's empty seat for themselves. Snape was Harry's least favorite teacher, which was fine by him since Harry also happened to be Snape's least favorite student. Cruel, sarcastic, and disliked by everybody except the students from his own house, anything that saw him gone was a good thing in Harry's book.

"Maybe he's ill!" a hopeful Harry said quietly, suddenly even more eager to get to the hospital wing if it meant a chance to see the man throwing up everything he'd ever eaten.

"Maybe he's left!" a hushed Ron said. "You know, because he missed out on the Defense Against Dark Arts job again!"

"Or he might have been sacked!" Harry added enthusiastically. "I mean, everyone hates him–"

"Or maybe," Hermione said in a somehow chiding voice, "he's with Hagrid and Madam Pince, because she's missing too."

That poked a whole in the fun.

'What would Hagrid be doing with Snape and the librarian?' he thought.

Suddenly, Harry's brain took a sharp left turn as the most unlikely image popped into his head. Hagrid stood at the back of an overly-long Hogwarts boat, trying to play the part of a serenading gondolier, while completely missing the fact that, because of the man's great size, his end was dipping almost entirely into the lake. Snape and Madam Pince were left high out of the water and clinging to the other side of the boat in panic, all their plans for a romantic moonlit boat ride in shambles.

Harry laughed at the absurdity, which quickly got him shushed by someone who shushed a lot like Percy. His outburst didn't matter much though because everyone then started clapping for the bowing magical hat. Hermione looked at him like she may've made a huge mistake in agreeing to go out with him.

"What was that about?" Ron asked as Harry tried to stifle his mirth.

"What if it's a date?" he asked, a little red-faced.

"With a chaperone?" Hermione asked, cottoning onto the idea.

"With Madam Pince?" Ron asked, struggling to contain the absurdity. "Who'd she be dating – Snape or Hagrid?"

The thought of either of those dates happening, or perhaps it was the possibility of the two men fighting over who gets the librarian, even had Hermione fighting to remain somber. She got help rather quickly though in the form of Ron's brother, Percy.

"Shh!" he shushed them again from up the table a bit. "You'll get points taken off us before we have any to lose!" the boy whispered sternly as Hufflepuff applauded their newest member. Seeing as Professor McGonagall was glowering at them as she continued the Sorting, Harry thought it wise to watch the rest in silence.

"Gryffindor!" the Sorting Hat roared as their table erupted in polite applause.

Harry managed to get a look at their newest member when he hopped off the stool to join them. It was that mousy-haired boy from the Hopefuls meeting, the one with the blinding camera.

"All right, Harry?" the boy asked as he passed them by to find a seat.

Harry smiled in return, not wanting to push his luck.

Minute after minute passed with only intermittent clapping as one person after another was Sorted into Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin. Only the Slytherins seemed to clap for other Slytherins though, it was almost like they had no other family in any other house. Before long they finally got to someone else they actually knew when McGonagall called 'Lovegood, Luna' to be Sorted.

The pale-haired girl sat on the stool patiently as McGonagall lowered the hat onto her head, which seemed to swallow almost all of it.

Time dragged on and yet she continued to sit there. The minutes passed and the hat seemed to be no closer to an answer than before; the slight lean the Hat had shifted a time or two but what that might mean was anyone's guess. The older students eventually began whispering 'hatstall,' though Hermione didn't think it had been five minutes yet, and in the end Luna had to go wait back in line so they could continue.

"I thought she'd be in Ravenclaw for sure," Ron leaned over to say. "She's always been rather loony."

"That isn't nice, Ron," Hermione chided as 'Moon, Libby' was called forward.

"Neither is saying that all I want is food, Hermione," the boy huffed before his stomach gave a particularly loud rumble. "Not that I'd turn down a sandwich right about now."

"You stuffed yourself on–"

"–Can we not fight?" Harry cut in to say, hoping to keep his best mate and his girlfriend from pulling each other's hair out.

"Just because she's a bit… unconventional," she hedgingly said to him, unwilling to admit her own feelings about the odd girl in public, "that's no reason to pick on her."

"True," he agreed, "but it's not like he sent her crying into the bathroom."

"And it's not like we wouldn't go to save her if there was a troll or something," Ron said defensively. "It worked out well for us last time," he pointed out.

"Gryffindor!" the Sorting Hat cried out, the resulting applause stifling anything else Hermione might've wanted to say.

His girlfriend settled into a disgruntled but dignified disapproval, which Harry took to be fine for the short term at least. His concern though was with the long term because ever since Ron had taken to using her own words against her he'd been able to get under Hermione's skin easier than ever. He hoped they figured out a way to get along because he didn't want to lose either of them.

The Sorting continued on as before and the line of students slowly dwindled lower and lower. The tension between them was broken a bit when a new Ravenclaw, a dirty-blonde named Hope Watson, was so enthusiastic she almost strangled another Ravenclaw girl he took to be her elder sister by hugging her around the neck from behind. Somewhat embarrassed at the amused laughter it caused, the girl wedged herself into a seat between her sister and the boy next to her; and while the older girl was somewhat ruffled by this, the boy was too amused to care.

That made Ginny Weasley and Luna Lovegood as the only ones left to be Sorted. Ginny looked grimly determined as the Sorting Hat swallowed her head like a hungry couch. It didn't take long at all though to get a response.

"Gryffindor!" the hat rang out, getting a loud round of applause – and a couple of loud whistles and brotherly bangs on the table of support – from the Gryffindors as the youngest Weasley hopped down and took it off to hand back to McGonagall.

Surprisingly, Luna snatched it and plopped it on her own head before she had the chance to.

"Gryffindor!" the Sorting Hat roared again instantly, seemingly relieved the whole thing was finally over with.

The odd blonde took Ginny by the arm and they skipped their way down the aisle, though it mostly involved Luna pulling a stunned Ginny along behind her.

"Well, you can't say she's not a little loony," Harry said to Hermione after they'd passed. "Not that that's bad," he added, hoping to get his girlfriend to budge a little. She looked willing to perhaps give him a little leeway on it, but she was still pretty prickly about it.

"Finally," Ron said as he turned back towards them and picked up a fork, preparing to spear the first bit of food that showed itself.

Up at the head table though Dumbledore rose to speak, and that made Harry uncomfortable. During the summer, Professor McGonagall had been worried about what he'd say at the Hopefuls meeting; now it was his turn to worry about what Dumbledore had to say. Would he single him out in front of the entire school and tell them he wasn't to be trusted, that everything he'd said before was a lie?

'That'd be a great start to the year,' Harry thought wryly. 'Maybe I should've attacked him when I had the chance.'

"Welcome!" Dumbledore called out instead, his smile as beaming as always. "Welcome to another year at Hogwarts! I have a few things to say to you all, and as one of them may affect your year a little more than the others, I think it best to get it out of the way before we're all ready to drift off to a well-deserved rest."

Harry, for one, didn't find that nearly as endearing as he would have last year.

Dumbledore cleared his throat and continued.

"As the older students should already know," he said with a glance towards the Weasley twins, "the forest on the grounds is forbidden to all pupils. Likewise, our caretaker, Mr. Filch, has asked me to remind you all that no magic should be used in the corridors between classes and that a full list of currently banned toys and other objects can be found in his office.

"Additionally, the more eagle-eyed among you may have noticed the change in our dinnerware this evening," the old man said, prompting Ron to have a haughty look as he smiled at Hermione. "That's part of a wider cosmetic change that's happening as a result of a list of things too boring to bother you with."

That last remark got scattered chuckles. And seeing as Dumbledore's list of boring things would have to include romance novels and fire-breathing dragons, Harry had to wonder if he was going to say anything about him at all.

"And finally," the headmaster said, with a somber air. "Due to an unexpected shortfall, we may have to do a bit of unforeseen belt-tightening. Naturally, we'll try to keep things as much the same as possible with regards to Quidditch and the like, but throughout the year you may notice that the feasts and banquets we're accustomed to are not as grand as they've been in years before. That's if, of course, we can manage to have them at all."

Murmurs greeted this notice, telling Harry that the man's plan was much more insidious than he'd thought. How many students lived in households that got the Daily Prophet? How many of them were following the news of what he'd done? His own name had been linked to Dumbledore's so often, how many were lumping that in with this to come to the conclusion that he's the one at fault for everything wrong this year? How many rumors will be flying around by tomorrow that everyone's heard it so many times that it's practically a fact?

A sinking feeling told him that it was even worse than that. Harry vaguely seemed to remember something about the money needed to run the school, but so much had happened this summer that it was hard to wade through it all to recall it. He thought that it had to do with Barchoke somehow, was he the one to mention it?

'What was it?' Harry frantically searched his memory before the answer occurred to him. 'The Beggar's Circuit!' he thought triumphantly. 'Barchoke said that Dumbledore was supposed to go beg for money if Hogwarts needed it, but instead he took it from my dead parents! He is trying to blame this on me!'

The old headmaster raised a hand to quiet everyone.

"This shouldn't cause too much of an alarm," Dumbledore said with a lying smile. "I have every reason to believe that the situation will resolve itself quickly," he said before giving Harry his best twinkling-eyed, grandfatherly look.

'DROP DEAD!' he shot back with a defiant glare, causing the old man to recoil as if struck.

Suddenly unsure of himself, Harry had to look around to see if he'd really shouted that or not. Nobody in the great hall was looking at him, and even Dumbledore had looked away, so he didn't think so. Still, he was embarrassed either way, even if what he'd thought was deserved.

"And before I have a chance to forget," the man added in an absent-minded way as he seemed to recover his poise. "I'd like to welcome our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher," he said with a gesture to his left, "Professor Lockhart."

There was a smattering of polite applause as the flamboyant wizard shot up to wave and smile at the assembled crowd. Harry couldn't help but notice though that for once Hermione looked almost as grim as he did.

"Tuck in," Dumbledore finished and regained his seat as the feast began.

As Harry expected though, it wasn't a feast at all. The food that appeared on the silvery plates was mainly sandwiches and other easily-made evening foods, nothing like the rich food they'd had last year. There was no roast beef or chicken, no pork chops or lamb chops, no sausages, no bacon or steak, no boiled or roast potatoes or fries; not even the Yorkshire pudding was there, so Harry had no doubt at all of there being any treacle tart waiting for desert.

"What sort of shortfall could affect Hogwarts?" Hermione asked dubiously, casting a shrewd eye at him as everyone began to eat.

"He just means now that he can't steal anything, Hogwarts has less money to spend," Harry said sourly.

"But I thought he was only taking money for the Hopefuls," she said quietly aghast. "I didn't know he had you funding the whole school!"

That made his mind do an odd pirouette as it tried to as it tried to review everything they'd talked about at once and it all looped around each other. He would've told her about that, wouldn't he? There was no reason not to, but had he actually done it? Now that he thought about it, he couldn't remember if he had or not.

"I must've forgotten," he said sheepishly before feeling the need to defend himself. "There was a lot to tell."

"Well, something's got to get fixed if all we get is sandwiches," Ron grumbled, barely paying attention to them as he took a bite of what he had – only to immediately let it fall out of his mouth and scrub his tongue with a finger.

"You just said you wouldn't turn down a sandwich, Ron," she shot back at him while he pried the offending thing apart to see what's inside.

"Yeah, but that's when I thought we'd have real food, not this," the boy said disgustedly. "Corned beef," he said, showing it to her. "I hate corned beef."

"Then pick something else," Hermione hissed at him. "Or are you only happy when Harry's the one paying for your food?" she asked pointedly.

"Wait – what's this?" a confused Ron asked with a look to Harry, suddenly dropping the fight.

Between mouthfuls of ham and cheese, and mutinous glances at Dumbledore, Harry explained what the headmaster's job was supposed to entail. Using his ill-gotten position as a guardian to use his dead parent's money to fund the school though seemed to make Hermione's ethical concerns about Lockhart pale in comparison.

"That's absolutely disgraceful," she said, now put off her meal entirely.

"Shro waf's dis god do do wif food?" Ron asked with a mouth full of club sandwich.

"Isn't it obvious?" Hermione asked, trying not to look at their friend's mouth as he ate. "He knows how much Harry enjoyed Hogwarts last year, so he's trying to make life more unpleasant so he'll give up on his lawsuit," she explained, adding a new complication into the works. "Didn't you hear him threaten Quidditch?"

Ron coughed and sputtered at that, leaving him to question her.

"When did he threaten Quidditch?" Harry asked. "He said everything would stay the same with that."

"He said they'd 'try to keep things as much the same as possible,' actually," Hermione repeated precisely, "–He never said it's guaranteed. What's to keep him from cancelling it and saying they don't have the money for it?"

That made his meal hit his stomach like a brick.

"Well if the other rumors don't make them hate me, that one certainly will," he said before explaining what he thought Dumbledore was doing.

"I wouldn't put it past him to try and turn people against you," his girlfriend agreed gravely. "He might even hold you responsible for the hit his reputation's taken in the Prophet and being forced to resign from the Wizengamot. And depending on what he cuts, and how deeply he cuts, he could even try to turn the teachers against you as well."

"And here I was sure this year Snape and Harry were destined to be friends," Ron scoffed as he grabbed another sandwich.

.o0O0o.

Her boyfriend seemed to take comfort in humorous diversions so she didn't say anything as the boys took the conversation in that direction for a while. Instead, she tried to occupy herself with eating, despite of the loss of appetite, and examining how the first few hours of being a significant other had changed their group dynamics.

Ron's lackadaisical attitude and rather blasé take on anything that wasn't an immediate concern blended well with Harry's tendency to use humor as a coping mechanism for dealing with serious things, so their friendship was still going well on the whole. But while she'd tried to make room to include that as her interactions with Harry had begun to change, Ron seemed intent on fighting with her over nothing. It was like he was barking at her to claim as much territory as possible, so she couldn't have any more of Harry than she did now; it was troubling, but telling him not to be such an arse likely wouldn't help anything.

Even though there was nothing to distinguish this Welcoming Feast from the normal school year dinner, everyone seemed to still feel bound by decorum to stay after they were done eating. Well plied with the meager sandwiches and pumpkin juice – a culinary hardship she'd gladly endure since it meant doing her part to stand up to the headmaster's underhanded schemes – Hermione found it hard to see what else could Dumbledore could justifiably add to what he'd said before.

She supposed leaving before he had the chance to say anything more pointed could prevent him from doing so, but it might also prompt him to do it since Harry wouldn't be there to defend himself. That might give Harry an opening to start fighting the rumors that Dumbledore wanted to spread but walking out was such a gross sign of disrespect the man may not have earned yet, at least not publicly. Instead, she waited in her seat as Dumbledore rose, wondering if the headmaster was about to give them a reason to publicly break from him further.

"And now we've come to the point where I give all the ominous tidings for the year," Professor Dumbledore said in a grave voice. "–But I told you those before, and you have classes in the morning," he said with a smile and a dismissive wave. "So off you pop."

Percy quickly tried to lead a Gryffindor exodus only for him to be quickly lost in the crowd and ignored as everyone stood and shuffled towards the door as a single mass. It was several minutes later, once they'd finally gotten to the end of the table, that Ron was able to join them, though they still moved no faster. Something odd did come their way though.

"So we've got a Luna and a Moon," Dean Thomas, the black boy in their year, said to the gaggle of First Years ahead of them. "You think someone's trying to tell us something?" he asked his friend Seamus beside him.

"I'm no Moon," the First Year named Libby replied seriously. "I'm a space station."

Seamus and Dean chuckled, as did a couple of people around them, while Hermione smiled and shook her head at the reference. For the first time that night though a joke was said but she didn't hear anything coming from Harry. She looked back at him and saw a milder form of the confused look that was plastered on Ron's face.

"At least there's a few normal people here," the Death Star said with a shrug as they continued to make their way through the crowd, though it wasn't until they were out of the great hall that things finally sped up and they had room to move as they climbed the main stairway.

Hermione briefly considered asking Harry how he could know about Indiana Jones and not Star Wars but figured the answer probably lied with the peculiarities of the Dursley household. With a father like hers it'd been impossible for her to miss it, especially when he'd tried to convince her that magic might be something like the Force. He was so bizarre that she wondered if it'd be better to keep Harry away from him to limit the embarrassment or whether inviting him over next summer would help him stay connected to the muggle part of himself.

Her boyfriend bumped her shoulder and captured her hand with his. Looking over at him and seeing the coy 'I don't know what you're talking about, you bumped into me' look on his face made her decide that the latter was definitely the way to go. Writing to her father more this year would give her ample opportunity to ask, later in the term, along with plenty of time to needle him about it until he agreed; Harry's rental agreement did end on his birthday after all.

A group of girlish giggles behind them turned out to be Lavender and Parvati. The two girls were walking with Padma, Parvati's Ravenclaw twin, but while she immediately looked elsewhere uninterested, the Talkative Two were staring right at them – and they didn't even have the decency to pretend to be laughing about something that wasn't them. Hermione led the boys to a secret passage that'd take them to a higher floor and away from Ravenclaw tower in an attempt to get away from them, but all that did was make them giggle again.

Ron walked with them until it was time for them to split off, and by then his full stomach of not-corned beef had made him more pliant and willing to go on to Gryffindor tower without them. The doors to the hospital wing were open when they arrived and though there was plenty of light to see, it definitely had the dim, late-night feel. There was no Hagrid or Professor Snape there though, just the school nurse bustling out of a side-room she'd always taken to be her office.

"Ah, good to see you got my message," Madam Pomfrey said by way of greeting. "You can wait over there, Miss Granger," she continued with a gesture as she scooped up Harry and walked off with him. "I'll be with you in a moment."

It was a little disconcerting to be so thoroughly dismissed by a school authority. She wasn't used to being preemptively told to wait and the obvious questions she'd have ignored. With nothing else to do and no other protocol to follow, Hermione found herself sitting on the bed Madam Pomfrey had gestured to while Harry went off with the nurse to the far side of the long room and disappeared behind a curtained screen.

Whatever Madam Pomfrey was saying only reached her as an indistinct murmur. Harry, though, came though much more clearly.

"But I feel fine," he said somewhat questioningly, making her wonder what the nurse's concern was and why she couldn't know it.

'Does the magical world have a tradition of doctor-patient confidentiality or is it just a sense of propriety that drove her to separate us?' Hermione wondered, before pausing to consider what the appropriate new-girlfriend role in medical consultations should be.

"Mrs. Figg is supposed to have done that," Harry said to something she couldn't hear. "No, she's a squib that lived near me. The Dursleys used to drop me off there."

Quickly, she tried to remember what she'd heard about the mysterious cat breeder but all she could think about was whether Lichfield had released the poor woman from captivity yet or not.

"Well, that's what my litigator said," her boyfriend said to another murmur. "He said she'd been slipping them to me when I was there, but I always thought it was rancid tasting tea."

There was then a rumbling explanatory murmur from Madam Pomfrey she was sure would've been absolutely fascinating to hear. It was somewhat unexpected to find herself leaning over, as if to peek around the curtain from where she sat, when Harry gave a somewhat dispirited "Oh" in reply. Apparently what Mrs. Figg had done hadn't been good enough to meet the nurse's standards.

Suddenly a quill, parchment, measuring tape, and what looked like bulging brass calipers came flying out of the nurse's office to join Harry and Madam Pomfrey behind the curtain while a small gap at the bottom showed Harry's outer robe fall to pool around his shoes. Hermione blushed and quickly sat upright. She'd barely even thought of kissing Harry before – well, a bit more than barely – so anything to do with clothing was still a very long way off; years even.

"Don't worry, Mister Potter," Madam Pomfrey said as she came back around the screen, "it won't take long at all."

She was sitting far more rigidly than ever before as the nurse approached and Hermione tried to keep the guilty slosh in her stomach under control. Try as she might, she couldn't keep the irrational fear that the woman knew what she'd been thinking about from popping up. But it wasn't like she'd actually moved or anything though – let alone seriously considered moving.

"And how are we tonight, Miss Granger?" Madam Pomfrey said in a much more pleasant but no less businesslike way.

"Fine, what's going on with Harry?" Hermione asked quickly.

"Just a general health evaluation," the nurse answered nebulously. "It's nothing to be concerned about."

Suddenly, an idea sparked in her mind.

"You're measuring him to compare his growth to the norm, aren't you?" she asked pointedly

"What makes you think that?" Madam Pomfrey asked guardedly.

"With the tape measure and calipers, I don't see what else it could be," Hermione explained. "You're concerned his relatives' treatment of him might've stunted his growth, aren't you?"

The nurse scrutinized her for a moment before replying.

"Have you ever considered becoming a Healer?" the nurse asked in lieu of an actual response.

"No," she said honestly, though now the subject was raised she could see how an analytical mind like hers could excel there. "I've always been drawn more towards social, political, and legal reforms."

"A pity," Pomfrey said before producing her wand to signal something to come flying out of her office towards her. "Such a mind though should be able to appreciate the need to address this sort of concern sooner rather than later," the woman said, handing her what appeared to be a blank-fronted brochure.

Wondering what sort of concern the nurse could have with her, let alone one that'd need any sort of concealment, Hermione opened the pamphlet.

Her eyes popped.

She closed the brochure.

Hermione didn't know whether to be more shocked or embarrassed.

"You–," the words caught in her throat and she glanced to where Harry was hidden before continuing in the barest hint of a whisper. "You want me to take a Pregnancy Prevention Potion?" she asked disbelievingly. "I'm not even thirteen yet!" she hissed at the unspoken presumption that she'd be so irresponsible to be sexually active this young.

"It's a good bit younger than we usually offer this," the nurse said in a low murmur, "which is why I wanted to see you before I get to anyone else. Traditionally, this would be part of a series of secret all-girl classes about the reproductive process and the responsibility that comes with being, shall we say, more involved with boys. In recent years though I've frequently found our muggleborn students to be quite knowledgeable in this regard already."

"It's a subject that's covered in our Health classes," Hermione said stuffily, wanting nothing more to do with it. "And my mother, who's a medical practitioner, has gone even more in-depth with it, so the whole issue isn't necessary to address at all."

"In terms of education, that may be true," an unfazed Madam Pomfrey replied. "And seeing as your inclusion in those classes would likely be the cause of the sort of wild rumors that young people are often known for, I'm willing to let you opt-out of them. Regardless, when a parent inquires about things like this," she continued, tapping the pamphlet again, "we do our best to accommodate their concerns."

"My parents?" Hermione asked in a near growl. "What do they have to do with this?"

"From what I've been told, your father wrote to Professor McGonagall in regards to your–," the nurse murmured, tilting her head Harry's way, "new association."

'So much for Dad not knowing that Harry's really our boyfriend,' she told herself sourly, feeling all the more embarrassed at the thought of him getting her favorite teacher personally involved in the most private part of her personal life.

"He even went so far as to pay for the service as soon as he heard of it," Madam Pomfrey informed her. "Grossly overpaid, actually. From what the bank told me, the muggle money he sent was enough for three years' worth."

'Gringotts strikes back,' Hermione thought, remembering the higher price her father had to pay for converting money. She hoped the incident had just blown his sense of scale when it came to wizarding money because, if it hadn't, this was a kind of deranged over-protective measure he'd never displayed before. The deal with the bank did give her something to fight this new intrusion with though.

"My parents are muggles," she informed Madam Pomfrey in as dignified a manner as she could at the moment. "They chose not to name anyone as a magical guardian, knowing what it meant. So no matter how irrationally protective they are, neither they, nor Professor McGonagall, are in charge of my decisions and can't compel me to do anything."

"Those are all points that Minerva raised when she informed me of the request," the nurse said with a knowing smile. "She was going to write to tell him that we couldn't guarantee anything if you refused, but apparently your litigator wrote to ask us for the same thing."

Hermione felt like she'd been thrown in a goblin jail cell again.

"Unfortunately, neither of us know the law well enough to know whether you having a litigator is tantamount to you picking a magical guardian for yourself or not," Pomfrey explained, "but we've decided to err on the side of caution and honor the request. Of course, you're free to contest this if you wish," she continued, "but it might require a new litigator to fight the old one and to find someone willing to pay for it."

Hermione sat there feeling like she'd had to stomach eating Ron's partially-chewed corned beef.

"Er – Madam Pomfrey?" Harry called uncertainly from behind the screen.

"Have they finished?" the nurse asked him in return as Hermione wished the woman would go away.

"Uh – yes."

"Very well, Mister Potter, you may return to normal. I'll be with you in a moment," Madam Pomfrey said. To her though she pitched her voice low to say, "You really should read the brochure, Miss Granger, there are actually a number of health benefits to be gained by it."

The woman finally left to go back to her office and summoned the Harry-prodding implements to meet her there. Hermione though was left to contemplate her own powerlessness in the situation as muffled sounds behind the screen told her that Harry was getting dressed again.

It was obvious to her why the people involved would do this; she only debated whether they'd conspired together to make it happen. She doubted her father had such a deep deception within him though, and that would leave them as two separate concerns that that manifested the same way. Her father was no doubt motivated to 'do his duty' as an over-protective parent while Lichfield was trying to take care of any issue that might remotely be connected to Harry.

It seemed a basic conflict of interest to her for Lichfield to do this, since her interest as his client would be to remain free of any outside influence like a magical guardian while he'd made it plain that he saw it within Harry's interest to intrude–

'After all,' Hermione interrupted herself, 'the man did say, "I can't really argue that [Harry's] a responsible last of his line if another Potter's on the way before [you're] old enough to get married" at the Hopefuls meeting.'

Unfortunately, this seemed to be yet another instance of a lack of wizarding ethics coming into play, and just like with Lockhart before, she didn't know the culture well enough to know if such behavior was expected, whether or not the legal system allowed it. Was she really just supposed to accept being hoisted on her own petard when her lawyer acted against her? Her first instinct was to say no, but doing what Madam Pomfrey said and trying to fight it would only leave her massively in debt trying to fight her pro bono lawyer, while losing any case she might bring could set a negative precedent to be used against all future muggleborns.

'How can they run a world like this?!' Hermione thundered in her mind. 'How can they just accept such blatant abuses of power as normal? Was there no one willing to stand up and make them stop doing this?'

She swore that if there was one thing she did in her life, she'd establish an ethics board of some kind, and she didn't care whether the wizarding world liked it or not.

After a few minutes spent presumably consulting the measurements she'd gotten from Harry's automated health exam, Madam Pomfrey came back carrying three different bottles. Hermione chose to bury herself in reading medical pamphlet so she wouldn't have to engage with the other woman but that didn't stop the nurse from setting a potion bottle next to her as she passed her by. She briefly considered flicking it off the bed to shatter on the floor, but that'd run counter to her 'I'm not a child' stance – besides, if her father had paid as much as she said, the woman would only bring her another one.

Hermione knew that she and Harry weren't going to be do anything remotely physical anytime soon, so entertaining the idea that the potion was needed for what it was specifically intended for was nonsense. That didn't do anything to help her mood though since the secondary side-effects of it actually did seem genuinely beneficial. They didn't seem too different from what the hormonal contraceptives her mother had mentioned to her offered, though presumably without any of the questionable bits since it dealt with magic rather than hormones, so if you only considered that then the audacity of suggesting that she take it lessened quite a bit.

There was a major selling point the potion had though that made not taking it an increasingly unviable option. According to the booklet, one dose lasted a full year so if she took it she wouldn't even have to think about anything related to this until next September the first if she didn't want to. With a cost-benefit analysis as lop-sided as that there was hardly a decision to make; that didn't excuse the men for trying to make the decision for her though, not in the least.

Removing the stopper from the jug-like potion bottle Hermione sniffed at the potion inside. She almost wished for a clinical, medicine-like smell to criticize but unfortunately no such childish excuse proved forthcoming. The first bit of it to hit her tongue though was rather startling; it tasted exactly like pumpkin juice!

She had to wonder what would've happened if she had refused to take it. Would they've found a way to slip it to her without her knowledge? Would they have chanced another student taking it if they took the wrong cup in the great hall? She didn't want to think they'd be so irresponsible but there really wasn't anything that she could rule out anymore.

"Of course it does," she heard Madam Pomfrey say as she appeared from behind the curtained screen. "What'd you expect, pumpkin juice?" the nurse asked before glancing her way meaningfully and taking hold of the screen.

Hermione gulped the potion down in four or five large swallows and hid the bottle behind her while the nurse moved the screen aside to reveal a Harry that was sitting much like she was and drinking his own potion. Besides for the slightly sugary aftertaste – and the gross violation of her personal life and autonomy – the completely unneeded prevention potion wasn't that bad.

"Ugh!" her boyfriend cried like an overgrown baby as he gave the potion bottle back to Madam Pomfrey with a look of deep revulsion. "Did it have to taste like that?"

"It did if you want it to work," the nurse replied. "Just finish that other one and you're good to go," she said taking her leave, though she did make sure to stop by to retrieve all the implicating materials they wouldn't want Harry to know about before disappearing back into her office.

Hermione hopped off the bed and made her way over to her boyfriend, who'd just uncorked the second potion and was giving it an off look.

"What is it?" she asked as the bottle exuded a sweaty smell.

"It's supposed to be a health potion, but it smells like old socks," he replied with an 'I can't believe I have to drink this' expression. "That can't be a good sign, can it?"

"What was the last one you had?" Hermione asked instead.

"Well, they're both supposed to be health potions, but that one smelled like eggs and tasted like rotten fish," Harry groused.

"Then perhaps she gave you the bad one first so you could get it over with," she said helpfully, though she scarcely half-believed it. Reinforcing his doubts though would do nothing to talk him through it, and if it was beneficial then it really was best for him to take it – no matter how bad it tasted.

"I guess it can't be much worse," he surmised as he grudgingly brought it to his lips.

His throat seemed to seize and he put a hand to his mouth as he forced himself to swallow.

"Oh – glawh," Harry said, as if his tongue had betrayed him. "I think I prefer the other one."

His attitude made Hermione smile. She knew she shouldn't, but for some reason she even found Harry's complaints endearing. No doubt he didn't mean it to be taken this way but after being around his self-deprecating humor for a while everything seemed to take on a comically exasperated 'my life sucks' quality that you knew he didn't mean.

"It can't be that bad," she said bracingly instead, hoping they could leave soon and enjoy the walk to their dorm in peace now that the giggling girls were sure to be in bed.

"You say that but you don't have to drink it," the boy said with a crinkling nose.

"Hand it here then," Hermione said tauntingly, unafraid of any medicine.

"Wha–You want to take it?" Harry asked disbelievingly.

"You think I'm scared?" she asked, silently needling him to get on with it and show that he's not afraid of anything.

"No," he replied without the cagey look she'd expected him to get, the same one her dad always had when her mum quickly backed him into something. "If you want to, go ahead," Harry shrugged, offering her the potion.

That was his. She hadn't been serious. She didn't even know what it did.

Several responses immediately came to mind, only to die as they traveled to her tongue. Had Harry not been socialized enough to recognize the flirtatious needling she'd just used, or had she not been socialized enough to know how to do it right? Either way it came to the same thing: she'd painted herself into a corner and if she backed out it'd leave her in a weakened position in the relationship since he'd think less of her.

That wasn't something she was prepared to have happen, but thinking of it objectively, it didn't appear that Harry needed help when it came to his growth at all, at least to her. If that was so, the potion was probably something to boost his short-term immunities or the like, taken out of an abundance of caution, not something meant to act on the long-term effects of malnutrition, which didn't appear to be present. With that in mind she was hard-pressed to see what sort of damage such a healing potion could feasibly cause.

Feeling more reckless than brave, she took the potion from him and tried to get the tiniest taste she could. Foulness shriveled her tongue as the taste of how a pack of wet dogs smelled flooded over it, the buttery texture of escargot sliding down her throat before the taste came back to burn her nose. Coughing and sputtering, she struggled to push the potion back at him through burning eyes.

"Miss Granger!" Madam Pomfrey cried behind her as the bottle finally left her grasp. "What on earth are you doing?!" the woman asked as she hauled her back towards her office.

"What's wrong? Harry asked quickly. "You said it was just a health potion."

"Yes, Mister Potter, a boys' health potion."

With a sudden jump of nerves, Hermione wondered what was going to happen to her.

.o0O0o.

His stomach twisted itself in knots as he sat there waiting. Harry thought Madam Pomfrey could've at least told him what was wrong but no answers were forthcoming, to him at least. The nurse had Hermione secreted away in her office so she could figure out what the potion would do to her. He didn't know how long they'd been gone but he knew one thing: whatever happened to her was his fault.

He hadn't known there'd be a difference between a boys' potion and a girls' – or even that there were two different potions – so how was he supposed to know Hermione shouldn't drink it when even she didn't know she shouldn't? Well, obviously, because he'd been told to drink it and not her, but Madam Pomfrey hadn't said she couldn't drink it too. But still, how could he have been dumb enough to let her do it?

Harry supposed he could've refused to hand it over since he didn't know what it did – but it was a health potion, so how could it be bad? Besides, saying she couldn't do it hadn't seemed the right thing to do either, especially since she put it in terms of him thinking she was too scared to do it. Not letting her would've been like calling her a coward, and that was definitely not a boyfriend-like thing to do, at least he didn't think so, so what else was he supposed to do?

'Something else, obviously, because it's only a couple hours in and I've already sent my girlfriend off with the nurse,' he groused, wondering if he'd jinxed everything. 'I'm a horrible boyfriend.'

As if to punish himself, Harry downed a bit more of the horrible potion Madam Pomfrey still wanted him to take. The taste of a rich earthy mud, with perhaps a bit of wriggling earthworm in it, slid down his throat and filled his already stuffed stomach. It wasn't the kind of thing anyone'd want to take on an empty stomach, much less a full one, but he definitely deserved it.

The opening office door snagged his attention and he quickly swallowed the rest before hopping off the bed. Harry paused a moment to settle his stomach before making his way to join them and see if he still had a girlfriend. A silent malaise hung about them when he got there though, so he thought it best not to speak and make it worse. Lacking anything else to do, Harry handed the empty potion bottle back to Madam Pomfrey.

"You may go," the nurse said, her look making him feel it that was him in particular the woman would be glad to be rid of.

Getting away from the hospital wing and Madam Pomfrey's judgmental stare didn't improve the situation much since it was obvious that Hermione was still out of sorts because of what had happened. Harry held himself back from bumping her shoulder and talking to her about it though because he didn't know if that's what she would've wanted. Everything felt thrown up in the air and he didn't know what to do to fix it.

Should he apologize for everything right away? Should he wait and give her space until she wants to bring it up? Should he let her yell herself hoarse before he tries to make amends? He didn't know what he would've wanted if it were him, and that made knowing what to do all the more difficult. Still, he had to do something, and when he thought about it he didn't even know how bad things really were.

"Are-are you alright?" he asked awkwardly as they approached the main stairway.

"Fine, so far," she said grumpily, "aside from the effects of my own stupidity."

That brought him up short; it wasn't the answer he was expecting.

"The last thing you could ever be is stupid, Hermione," Harry said defensively as they started climbing. "If anyone's stupid here it's me."

"For what, watching me bungle my way into a corner and have to live with the consequences?" Hermione asked. "You're not the one responsible for that."

"Still, I shouldn't have let you take it when wasn't meant for you," he argued, wondering why she was so insistent on blaming herself.

"And I'm the one that put you up to it," she stubbornly pointed out. "I created the situation. If I'd only kept my mouth shut it never would've happened."

Harry didn't know what to say to that but continuing to fight about it didn't seem the way to smooth things over, so instead he silently dropped it.

"So what did happen?" he asked cautiously instead.

"So far, nothing," Hermione said succinctly. "The potions she gave you were designed to work over years, I'm sure she told you."

"She said something about making up for all the food the Dursleys were supposed to feed me," he agreed. "Apparently the potions Mrs. Figg tried became useless when she put them in tea."

"Interesting," his girlfriend said with a furrowed brow, starting to sound more like her brainy old self again. "There must be something about the native sympathies of the tea that counters what the potion tries to do. Malnutrition is nothing to sneeze at though," she informed him. "It could affect your height, weight, and cognitive development, even lower your ability to fight diseases."

"All that just from food?" Harry asked bewilderingly.

"From a lack of food," Hermione corrected him, "or rather, from a lack of proper nutrition. In the last two hundred years people in the developed world have added several inches to our height because of better nutrition."

"So how tall am I going to be?" he asked more to himself than to her.

"Probably however tall you were supposed to be," she answered readily. "The potions she gave you were actually the weakest ones she had," Hermione informed him, making him wonder why she'd know this, until he realized it'd be affecting her too. "She was actually relieved the damage was so minor."

"So what's that mean for you?" Harry asked, wanting her to be okay.

"She-she's not exactly sure. Even though I only had a tiny bit of it, boys and girls have different growth rates, and though the potions for them are very similar, there are some key differences," Hermione said evasively. "Plus, the sympathies in it could interact with other things and they'd have to take that into account," she added quickly, as if throwing another load of other concerns on top of it. "Can you believe she wanted to take this to Professor Snape though to see what he thought?" she asked suddenly.

"Snape?" he asked. "Why him?"

"Because apparently he's the one who made the potion and presumably'd know more about it," Hermione explained. "He's not the sort of person I'd trust my health and wellbeing to though," she said, finally seeming to gain a healthy suspicion of the man.

"Neither would I," Harry agreed while something about it tugged at the back of his mind. "He'd probably announce it in class and the Slytherins would have a field day."

"Not an appealing prospect," she said, folding her arms in front of her.

"So what's going to happen?" he asked, thinking that it might just be a severe case of worrying that was bothering her.

"Madam Pomfrey said she'd be discussing it with Saint Mungo's, but that it might be a couple of days before they knew whether there was even a problem or not," Hermione explained, telling him it wasn't just the worry, it was the worry and the not knowing, that was bothering her.

He briefly thought about trying to find some way to hugely exaggerate the concerns until no one could take them seriously anymore, but quickly discarded the idea. Doing that would probably only make things worse, or worse than that, it'd make her think he didn't care. He was bad enough at being a boyfriend already for getting her into this, he wasn't about to make it worse.

"Well, if it's supposed to take years, then there's probably nothing to really worry about yet," Harry said in an attempt to be reassuring. "And if she thought it'd be serious, there's no way Madam Pomfrey would've let you out of the hospital wing. She almost didn't let me go to the end of year feast last term," he said, his mind threatening to veer off-track as he remembered it was Dumbledore that'd made sure she did.

"And you remember how reluctant she was to say that Ron's hand was alright after Norbert bit him," he reminded her, thinking this line of reasoning might work. "She probably tries to keep anyone she can in there with her, just to give herself something to do. So really, if she can't find a reason to keep you there, anyone else probably would've said you're fine."

Hermione glanced at him before saying anything.

"Norberta," she said before explaining. "Charlie said that Norbert was a girl, remember?"

"Oh, right," Harry said from a lack of anything else to say before fidgeting and flattening his hair down unnecessarily.

"I know what you're trying to do," she said with a look and tone that was more welcoming than most people usually gave to the words. "I'm far too much of a worrier for it to work, but I do thank you for trying," Hermione added with a worried smile.

"Would it be better if I mentioned all the classwork, homework, and extra studying we'll have to do starting tomorrow?" he asked somewhat less seriously.

"Well, it certainly couldn't hurt," his girlfriend said, her smile changing to a wry one before she uncrossed her arms and bumped his shoulder with hers.

Harry thought it was a nice way for her to let him know that he wasn't that bad of a boyfriend after all, but her taking his hand was even better. As they entered the final corridor to see the Fat Lady waiting for them at the end of it, the short-lived nature of their privacy brought up a subject that he didn't quite know how to handle. He didn't want to ruin what they'd just put back together but for that to have a chance to set they'd have to address the thing that might come around to knock holes in it again, and that was better done in private.

"Er," he said uncertainly, fighting against the impulse to remove his hand from hers to wipe the bout of nervous sweat from it as he stumbled through what to say. "You and Ron aren't going to be fighting all year, are you?" he said inartfully, wishing he'd come up with a different way to phrase it.

"That depends on him," Hermione replied, the corners of her mouth stiffening as her eyebrows lowered as they marched ahead. "I've given him every opportunity but he insists on trying to wind me up."

"Well, it is rather fun to wind you up," Harry said with a verbal poke.

"That's different," she said dismissively. "It's flirtatious when you do it. When he does it it's just–"

Lacking a proper word, she cut herself off and continued in a growl and a pair hands that were tightening into claws. It was as if the only way to properly communicate the frustration that was Ron was to devolve into animalistic grunting, which Harry found funny coming from someone as cerebral as Hermione.

"Well, it's not like you weren't–"

Harry coughed and cut himself off as quickly as he could. She'd been giving as good as she'd gotten at dinner, at least from his seat, but it might not help to point it out since she might get defensive. The last thing he wanted was to fight with her about whether she'd been fighting with Ron, because then they'd probably end up fighting about what happened in the hospital wing and they'd just gotten past that.

Hermione looked over at him curiously as soon as he stopped talking but rather than demanding an explanation, she seemed to turn inward in that reflective way she had. They walked for a moment together in silence until–

"Wattlebird," she said to the Fat Lady, before the portrait even had a chance to ask for the password, and she scrambled into the common room without ever leaving her contemplative state, leaving Harry to wonder what would come next.

The red and golds of the Gryffindor common room were mostly different shades of darkness when he entered. The tiny flames in the fireplace and the moonlight coming through the windows could only do so much, which was nothing at all when they were behind the person you were looking at. Hermione was standing in front of him but with the way she was standing, it was hard to tell if she was facing him or not.

"You don't think I've been subconsciously instigating conflicts with Ron in order to drive him away, do you?" the black shadow that was his girlfriend asked uncertainly, prompting him to hope that she took his confusion over what to say next as him not understanding what she said. "I mean, it was never my intent to do so, and I didn't think I was at the time, but looking back I can see how I may've been acting that way without noticing."

Harry thought shrugging was the best way to answer that.

"You're loads of help, Harry," she said with an eye roll and sardonic smile he could almost see. "You know I'm not going to bite you if you're honest about what you think, don't you?" Hermione asked as he moved to the side so that he could actually see her face.

He didn't think she looked dishonest, if anything she seemed to find humor in the situation.

"I thought it'd be better safe than sorry," he explained with another shrug and a chagrinned grin. "I didn't want everything to fall apart on the first day."

"This is me we're talking about," his girlfriend pointed out with a wry look. "Even your bad luck isn't that disastrous."

"You say that now but…," Harry said in a 'you're poking fate' kind of way while all the long hours until the first twenty four had passed still stretched out in front of them.

His girlfriend didn't seem to take the danger seriously though since she darted forward to hug him. It was a nice feeling, and a hug he was glad to return, that did a lot to lessen the thought that she'd hold the chaos of the last month against him. He knew she'd have every reason to – and even more so after tonight – and that just made him all the more determined to get better at this whole being a boyfriend thing, because he did not deserve a girl like her.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Harry," Hermione said as she pulled away from him.

"Goodnight," he said to her as she left before turning to spend the walk to his room wondering if just saying the one word was really as cutesy as it sounded in his head.

.o0O0o.

'It will be repeated anywhere we damn well please and as loudly as we choose,' the red-eyed goblin's words replayed in his mind. 'It's not like anyone would believe it, even if we did. "Master, could you please try not killing this one, I'd like to keep her as a pet. Kill the kid though," is hardly an expression of love. Now get out.'

It's been more than three weeks since Severus heard those words but now, in his almost barren office, they echoed more loudly than ever. Part of him still wanted to bristle at the audacity of trying to tell someone else how they felt about another person while another wanted to call into question what a goblin knew about love in the first place. Goblins knew only two things: gold and greed, so something like love was alien to them.

If he were going to ever have a life more open to opportunities though he'd have to better know the chains that bound him, and the one that bound him to Lily Evans was particularly pronounced. Pronounced or not though what he'd felt for her was something that he'd never had to question – at least until now. He loved her, of that he was sure, but something in the goblin's words were too close to truth to be ignored; the silent accusation that love wasn't love if it wasn't selfless kept coming back to bother him because for the life of him he couldn't say that of the way he felt about her.

No, his love wasn't a love that was selfless, or kind, or had any of the other sentimentality that others normally required of it, but it was still love of a sort. It was a love that uplifted the object of its adoration beyond its peers, valued it above any other consideration, and filled him with a burning need for it, even when it was no longer obtainable. If you couldn't call that love then what did you call it? But even if his was a selfish and greedy sort of love, Severus knew that what he felt for her had been far more than what James Potter had ever felt.

No matter how mistaken he may've been about the boy's life, James Potter had been every inch the pampered little prince he'd seen in his son. The flashiest of new brooms, bought by sickeningly doting parents, and the House-wide popularity that'd come with a few Quidditch wins had spoiled the man early. His had been a superficial life consumed with looks, fame, and an overweening pride, and that only engendered superficial feelings about anything.

So even if love wasn't love if it was greedy then it certainly wasn't love if it was superficial. When it came to a contest between a greedy love and a superficial love, Severus knew which one he thought would win. Unfortunately, his opinion on the matter was irrelevant. What Lily had thought – what she might've thought had there ever been the chance to present the choice to her – would never now be known.

It was a cold and depressing reality to face but it was nothing compared to the fact that he'd also never know whether she had ever felt anything for him at all. Anger and spite may have forced her to permanently foreclose that possible route in life but that had been the last act in a long process, it hadn't been the beginning of it. Severus knew that his potential course in life had been forcefully narrowed from the outset but wanted to think that the early behaviors he'd been forced into were in every way justified.

When you had a father who liked to drink and hit and a mother too cowed to stand up for herself, what other choice did you have but to take the beating for her? Better to distract the man and let the ogre tire himself out a bit on you than to have him kill her. How any self-respecting witch could have gotten into that situation he didn't know but the least she could've done was use magic to get them out of it. Apparently, that would be going too far.

'It'll only make him angrier,' his mother would say through a swollen and bruised face.

So be it, as far as he was concerned. If a little magic would make him angrier then maybe more would make him stop; maybe it would hurt him, maybe even kill him and make him stop for good. How could you stay away from curses, hexes, and the darkest spells your childish mind could conjure after that?

It didn't help though; his mother had been right. He had just been a stupid little boy with a stick for a wand and a head full of words he couldn't remember, and it had only made him angrier. Studying even more hadn't helped; when the whole thing started again the man would become too terrifying to think clearly against, and that made magic useless.

Lily had been the one good thing in his childhood. She was someone who understood what it was like being different, someone he could talk to about the magical world, and someone he even found himself sharing what it was like for him at home – though it might've been the dumbest thing he'd ever done to tell her not to tell anyone about it.

Would it have mattered if they'd known though? If the police had come to take his father away, how bad would it have been when he'd come back? And being as stupid as every child was, could he have really done anything differently?

The contrast between Lily and everything else though was clear. The muggle world was filled with loathsome swine, like his father, and shrews like Petunia, Lily's elder sister. His mother was a witch, which made her better than his father in every possible way, but even then she let him make her less than what she should've been until she refused to even do magic when he might find out about it.

He'd always wanted things to be better in the magical world, and his mother being his mother said they would be, since she'd come from there. Lily though had somehow been the best of both – no, she'd been better than the best of both – better than anything, at least to him. It was like she had a kind of magic around her that made you sure that as long as she was with you that life actually could be better somehow.

With it being that way with her, how could he have thought of her in any other way? How could he not value having that one good thing above everything else? How could he not want to keep it with him always? How was that a bad thing? How was that not love, even as a child? But even if it had been only a maybe, might-be, kind-of, sort-of, almost, quasi- kind of love, it still might've grown to become the real thing if it had ever been given the chance.

He'd wanted to keep her with him because she was the best thing in the world, so naturally that meant wanting her to be in Slytherin. It'd been his mother's House, so that had to make it the best, didn't it? That had been another childish mistake born out of ignorance; Slytherin would never have suited her. Surely he could've thought of another House to take her so she wouldn't have spent all that time with Potter.

Looking back now though, Severus's course in life seemed bound to go through Slytherin from the start. He'd hated his father and saw the muggle world as an extension of him. Indeed, his deepest ambition was to find a kind of magic dark enough to repay him for all the torments he'd inflicted on others, and that said Slytherin.

At first everyone there had seemed like kindred spirits: they were battered and beaten but resolved to pay their tormentors back in kind. And it had been all too easy to see any attempt others made to get close to Lily as an attack on him, since it was his precious thing they were trying to steal. This overriding fear fueled his attempts to sabotage her from spending time with anyone else and made confrontations with that bullying blow-hard Potter inevitable.

It had taken him years for him to realize how far his misguided view of things was from the truth, but by then it'd been too late. Severus had wanted nothing more than to be rid of his father only to end up surrounded by those just like him. He'd let his hatred of the man pollute everything he thought of muggles, making him susceptible to the Blood Purist line running rampant through the House and endangering everything he'd ever wanted.

And in the end the unforgivable happened: he became his father. The anger and humiliation he felt at Potter's hands blanked out all reason, just as those fights at home had done. Turned into a powerless laughingstock as he dangled with his robes around his head, he lashed out at Lily in the same way his father always lashed out at his mother, and all because she tried to help.

It was a horrid slur that sealed his fate. He'd tried to talk to her, tried to tell her that he wasn't that way and make her understand, but it hadn't been enough. It was one step too far and there was no going back.

He couldn't blame her, not now; it was like a lingering taint, some seed of evil – a dark mark – had passed from father to son. Was it so strange then that he received another, just a few years later, from a tyrant even worse than his father? Had this been the dark destiny of Severus Snape ever since the beginning? He thought it was.

An innumerable, incalculable number of forces had led him to this inexorable end, he saw that now. There was no more excuses left to hide behind; he was what his life had made of him. It was as if he'd been hand-crafted by the cold machinations of an uncaring universe to be precisely what he was; the predetermined path of the planets had conspired to corrupt any sympathies with others he might've had so that even the lofty notion of unselfish love was denied him.

So finally, he'd arrived at the truth: no matter how he felt about James Potter, Lily Evans had deserved better than either of them. What he was – what he'd been made to be – simply wasn't worthy of her, so who was he to dispute any of her decisions on the matter? What could he, as he now stood, possibly have had to offer her? A lifetime of bitter disappointment, that was all.

This was not the way his usual day of brooding reflection typically went, but for the first time he didn't feel as tightly bound. He was still enchained to his past, true, but those chains didn't feel as heavy anymore. Perhaps that way held the key to his freedom after all. Lucius had made mention of his caustic observations, as if they were a shard-like distillation of truth, but perhaps when it came to himself he hadn't been nearly caustic enough to distill anything useful until now.

Severus stopped his pacing and thought back to the beginning of things. He felt like a small and truly repulsive thing, a loathsome creature of an inborn malignancy, so perhaps it was fitting that this new way of reflecting on life had come from a goblin's words. After all, who better to spot someone so close to resembling themselves? It made him feel like that half-formed goblinoid student they'd had some years ago, but perhaps that's the way he should think of himself going forward if he wanted to be free.

Though he'd often felt himself constrained by forces outside of his control, he'd never intended to use this yearly ritual to probe the possibilities for the future liberation from them, so plumbing those particular depths would have to wait for another time. All that aside, the concrete observations of how those forces had shaped his life did provide the kind of insights he'd always wanted these nights to have, so perhaps he could put them to use.

Drawn from his thoughts, Severus turned and approached the brewing set-up that occupied where his most costly private stores were once held. The intricate set of swirling tubes were almost empty, leaving the amalgamated detritus from the distillation process simmering in a heated flask on one end while the rarified distillate resided in the small potion bottle on the evaporator's far side. He tapped the burner to halt the flame and flicked the tubing to collect the final droplet stubbornly hanging there.

It was a potion he'd been preparing for weeks, and though he'd like nothing more than to blame its current state on the I.C.W. intrusion, they were not the cause of the cloudy color. Perhaps it was because of his dire warning what would happen to them if the potion failed, the I.C.W. had taken a far less invasive tack in determining what it was and were forced to conclude, after extensive probing, that it was precisely what he'd told them it was: a Potion of Guided Dreams.

Looking at the resulting liquid though Severus had to conclude that there were limits to what his skills could accomplish given the components he had. After three times through the evaporator to syphon out what impurities he could from the low quality ingredients he'd been forced to use, it still contained fine abnormalities he couldn't extract, and he didn't have any other implements to use. It would have to do since a fourth time through would take too much time and likely gain him little improvement with it.

Being able to shape one's dreams as you wished in exchange for waking up a bit less rested than you otherwise would, the potion was not something to take on a nightly basis. Nevertheless, it was something he'd become accustomed to indulging himself with every September the first since this was the anniversary of when everything had started to go wrong in his life. He knew now that he was wrong in that, the process had started far earlier, but tonight the dreams wouldn't be like the ones that'd come before.

Tonight, this potion wasn't for imagining what would've happened if he hadn't said what he'd said to Lily that day or for potion-fueled delusions of her inexplicably running away with him for safety as her family was left to die. This would be for exploring something new, something that was much closer to the heart of what had actually been wrong with the way his life had gone. Even with those uncaring forces seeming to funnel them into the course their lives would later take, there had to have been something he could've done to keep her with him.

Instantly he didn't like how that sounded for it was precisely the way of thinking that had doomed him before. Having Lily, possessing her, and keeping her with him wasn't at issue here for the fault didn't lie with her. Severus had to acknowledge that he was the one that was flawed; Lily had only been reacting to his flaws when they'd been made manifest. It was pointless then to imagine other ways it could've gone if it didn't address that fact for no subtle manipulation of Lily's course in life could tell him about his own.

With the forces shaping his early life being what they were, what action, what unforeseen possibility, could've been enough to change things while still being within his already-limited array of options? Taking the new insights from before into account saw his ability to pursue alternatives shrivel rather quickly, so Severus took a seat at his desk while he thought on the problem.

With so much of his life dictated by the looming shadow that was his father and how he'd treated his mother, perhaps his dealings with his mother was a place to begin. She had been too cowed and cowardly to stand up to him, and that made her useless to learn from, but if he had reacted more negatively against the forces that'd failed her so much in her life and had developed a more realistic view of the world from it, then perhaps Severus wouldn't have been subjected to them himself.

It seemed an unusual proposition, and one that didn't negate the darker twinge he'd carry from his father so much as offer a possibility to mitigate it, but it was one that piqued his curiosity nonetheless. Leaning back in his chair, he put the purple potion to his lips and drank it down, quickly falling into a weak-limbed stupor as the dream overtook him.

Hundreds of candles floated in the great hall above them and Severus found himself fidgeting as he waited to see where his friend would go. He couldn't help but feel a little disappointment when she went to Gryffindor but tried not to let it show. They wouldn't be together in every class now but at least she turned her back on that rude boy from the train, so that was something.

Finally, his turn came and he sat under the old hat for what seemed like an eternity until…

"Better be…," the hat said in his mind before yelling to the assembled crowd, "Ravenclaw!"

It was on shaky, uncertain legs that Severus stood and walked to take his seat in his new House. It wasn't the one he'd thought he'd be in, but at least he was closer to Lily than he would've been otherwise. Besides, with the way she was smiling and clapping for him, perhaps this wouldn't be so bad.

.o0O0o.

The girls in her dorm seemed really nice, especially since they let her and Luna have the beds where they could see the moon out of the window. They also spent some time getting to know each other, which hadn't really been possible at dinner since there was so much noise from all the other people talking. Now that they were in their own room with just each other, it really made the whole thing much less scary.

Everyone knew they should go to bed, but it was difficult to do when being away from home like this was so thrilling, so how could they not stay up talking? Ginny didn't know whether what Libby said was true or if she came up with the same sort of stories that Luna sometimes did that seemed designed to make you wonder. It didn't seem like she was lying, but if someone really had gone to the moon then surely a witch or wizard would've done it first.

Eventually, the talk wound down as drowsiness kicked in, so people got ready for bed. She'd been hoping to ask Luna about what'd happened but it felt like too personal a thing to do when so many other girls could overhear. She'd just changed into her pajamas and got into bed when she looked over to see Luna sitting over in her bed with a lit wand tucked behind her ear as she seemed to be reading a small book.

Looking about at the sleeping others, Ginny pitched her voice low for only her friend to hear.

"Your diary?" she asked the girl across the way as she pulled the book-that-was-Tom from under her own pillow to tell him everything that'd happened that night.

"My mother's," Luna replied, pulling her up short. "She wrote this when she came here."

Ginny didn't know what to say to that. She had never really known much about Mrs. Lovegood but everything she knew about Luna made the question she needed to ask all the more necessary. She dithered a minute though wondering whether she should ask at all, but in the end she just had to know.

"Luna, what happened tonight?" she whispered anxiously, not really knowing how she was supposed to feel about it. She was glad she still had her very first friend with her but… "I thought you wanted to be in Ravenclaw, like your mum and dad."

Luna looked up at her and nodded.

"I did," she said dreamily, as if nothing in the world had gone wrong. "But I decided that it'd be better to be with friends."

'I can't believe it,' Ginny thought as it tugged at her heart. 'She chose me over her mum?'

Tears in her eyes, she threw off her covers and ran over to hug her friend.

"Oh!" Luna exclaimed in shock. "My wand's going to burn your hair."

.o0O0o.

With only four boys in their year – the three of them and a rather forgettable bookworm named Kenneth Towler, who was well versed in looking the other way and primed to get Prefect next year by default – George had always thought they'd show up and have less empty space in their room than the year before, but it was never the case. Year after year, almost a quarter of the room stood empty, not that he was complaining. The free space and extra privacy came in handy for working on things you didn't want anyone else to know about, so he supposed there was an upside in being one of the smallest classes in Hogwarts history.

"So it's true then?" the third still-conscious boy in the room asked.

"Well, it's not like we could ask him about it," his brother said expressively. "That would've been a cheerful conversation."

"When he laughs at his uncle getting shot in the face though," George said seriously, "that pretty much tells you all you need to know about what went on there."

"Yeesh, I don't blame you," Lee Jordan agreed as he began to change for bed. "My dad says those muggle weapons are nothing to take lightly. Now don't get me wrong, I like a woman with a temper when she gets riled–"

"–Angelina hit you again?" Fred asked with a cocked brow as he kicked off his shoes.

"Yeah, she whomped me good when she caught me trying to peek at her changing," their friend smiled as his dreadlocked head popped through the hole in his t-shirt. "I think she left a bruise this time," the boy said approvingly.

"You know she'll never agree to go out with you, don't you?" he asked somewhat selfishly as he disrobed.

"And if she did, you'd be single and in the hospital wing within an hour," Fred added helpfully.

"Eh, that's beside the point," Lee said dismissively, "Tormenting her is the fun part. Anyway, not even you two could make what happened with him into a joke."

"And if we did, mum would kill us," George remarked.

"He'd only been there a week and she already liked him better than she did us. Practically threw Bill's things out of the window to make room for him," Fred exaggerated, making him wonder if Oliver had been right about him. He was the more joking one. Would that work for him or against him if it came down to it?

"Word on the train though was that he's got a girlfriend," Lee reminded them. "You're sure to have something planned for that."

"Nah, we knew that weeks ago," George explained. "We'd planned on ribbing them something awful about it–"

"–But what's the point without a crowd?" Fred finished for him. "We did have a few laughs just after he got there though."

"Our sister, Ginny, fainted just from the sight of him," he said to Lee's curious look.

"Yeah, but afterwards we're so focused on ribbing Percy about his girlfriend that ribbing them now seems pointless," his brother said, taking over again. "They've been going out for so long, it's gotten stale."

"We missed our window," George lamented with a shake of his head as he bent down to open his trunk.

As soon as the locks snapped open the trunk popped open to reveal the tiny little elf within.

"Oh! D–Dobby's got to go!" Dobby said in a little crouch-like dance as if he hadn't used the restroom all day before disappearing with a pop!

"What the heck was that?" Lee asked as he synched up his billowy plaid pants.

"That was a Dobby," he replied, examining the Dobby-sized clothes indent he must've hidden himself in.

"You've got a house elf?" the boy asked disbelievingly.

"Of course not," Fred replied. "Harry does. We're going to have to get one first thing though," his brother said to him, "they're dead useful."

After that, the others had a short-run debate as to whether Harry's life was enviable or not. They had to agree that there were definite advantages that came with being Harry Potter, but there were horrendous drawbacks as well. In the end they both came to the same conclusion, who'd want to be Harry Potter if they didn't have to be?

Once they were done, and Lee in bed, Fred tossed a sock at him.

"What?" George asked, flinging the smelly thing off his bed.

"You're unnaturally quiet," his brother noted.

"One usually is when they're going to sleep," he said wryly as he noted how quickly Lee began to snore. "You really want to get a Dobby of our own?"

"Sure, unless they all have different names," Fred said flippantly. "If we ask around the kitchens, you think we can find one that'd be ready to run off with us by the time we graduate?"

"Probably, seeing as that's almost four years away," George said judiciously "That has to be half a lifetime to a house elf though, but waiting until then isn't really what I'd call 'first thing'."

In the next bed, his twin leaned up on an elbow to look at him.

"You implying there's something we should be going for before that first thing?"

"Not collectively," he said brusquely. "We didn't take the witch charming book to share a girl like a Dobby," George pointed out, uncomfortable with even thinking of a girl that way. He might share a lot with his brother, but a girlfriend was someone he wanted to like him for himself and to be with him exclusively.

"Good point," Fred said, laying back to look up at the ceiling again. "If I know you correctly, you've got a certain Quidditch witch on your mind, don't you?"

"You never know," he said noncommittally. "I figured you had a certain one in mind, but then you go mentioning how bad breaking Angelina's legs would be."

"You've seen her legs the same as I," his brother countered. "You really going to lay there and say you'd like to see them broken?"

"That's beside the point," George maintained, wishing they could stop talking about Angelina's exceptionally fine set of legs. "If you were going to talk about anyone's legs, I would've thought they wouldn't belong to her."

"And whose legs did you think I'd be looking at?"

"Alicia's, for one," he tried to say without any heat in his voice. "I've seen you notice her more than once."

"I've noticed her, sure, who hasn't?" Fred agreed. "Great girl, always up for a laugh, and she won't turn you in for pulling a prank. Couldn't use that as an example though, could I? You'd have to be dead not to notice a stand-out feature like Angelina's legs though, so there's a chance even Wood might've noticed."

"So you only used Angelina as an example?" George asked, trying to keep his hope under wraps.

"Would you prefer me to use her for something else?" his stupid-joke-telling brother said in that stupid way of his. "I could see that happening, I suppose, if she's up for it."

"And what about Lee then, eh?" he asked, staring an angry hole into the ceiling.

"Nah, you heard him," Fred said dismissively. "It's like we are with Percy, all he likes is pestering her – well, that and maybe a little crush he's already written off hope in, so it's not like Percy at all, actually – but either way there's nothing he'd get bent out of shape about. And you know what they say, 'All's fair in love and Quidditch,' right?"

George turned his back on his brother and pulled his covers over him, "That's absolutely right."

.o0O0o.

Everyone stopped talking as soon as the door opened. As strange as it was for them to be up late, the silence was even stranger. They all smiled, said hello, and they made their way to their respective trunks and beds as he entered but the stilted way they did it said they'd been talking about him. Nobody really looked him in the eye, but still, Harry supposed it could've been worse.

He didn't know if it was actually a good thing they did it or not, but if Ron hadn't been there they would've been waiting to pester him about it rather than talking behind his back. He knew it was odd to think that way but the last thing he wanted to do was talk about Dumbledore and the Dursleys. If Neville, Seamus, Dean, or anyone else wanted to get the inside scoop, he'd be glad if they went to Ron and just left him out of it.

The less he had to talk about it the better, as far as he was concerned.

"So what did Madam Pomfrey want with you?" his ginger-haired friend asked as they both got ready for bed.

"Oh, er – nothing important," he said evasively, wanting to stay well away from anything having to do with the hospital wing. He didn't know how Hermione wanted to deal with her worries – for all he knew she could be spilling everything to the girls in her room now, though he doubted it – but if it'd been him he wouldn't have wanted anyone to know, so he wasn't going to say anything.

"You were gone a while," Ron said somewhat guiltily, the pinkness of his ears telling him he felt bad for talking about him behind his back.

"Well, you know her," Harry replied as he got undressed for the second time that night. "She refuses to take 'I'm fine' for an answer. Hey, Ron," he added in a quick whisper, hoping he could bypass any more questions on it. "I just thought of something. With all that stuff in the Prophet this summer, people are bound to have questions. You don't mind if people talked to you about it, do you?"

"What – me?" his best mate whispered back with a glance to the other guys in the room.

"Yeah," he said, wondering how he could explain why it was okay for him to do what'd already happened. "At first I thought they'd come up to me about it," Harry said with a look to show what he thought of the prospect, "but now I'm thinking they might ask you and Hermione."

"Well, we are your best friends," Ron agreed as he pulled out his pajamas. "I guess it makes sense they'd ask us."

"And you'd be doing me a favor," he explained, hoping turn things around the other way. "The last thing I want to do is talk about it and all you really have to do is say what you know or that everything they've read in the Prophet is true."

"I guess that's true," the other boy said grudgingly. "It still feels odd ta–"

Dobby cut him off by appearing next to him with a pop!

"Dobby found Harry Potter!" the little elf cried triumphantly.

"Ack!" Ron cried in return as he overbalanced and fell onto his bed.

"What the hell is that?" Dean asked, prompting Dobby to look around nervously as the sudden center of attention.

"Blimey, is that a house-elf?" Seamus asked as well. "Me mam's always wanted one o' them."

"That's an elf? I thought it'd be taller."

"Nah, you're thinking fancy muggle elves," the Irishman explained as Ron got back to his feet. "Real elves are more like Santa's. I thought they were supposed to look like potatoes though."

"Those are gnomes," Ron corrected him.

"What, are there dwarves here too?" Dean asked with an odd look on his face. "What do they even do?"

"They do work in wizarding households," Neville chimed in to say.

"Dobby, what are you doing here?" Harry asked, hoping to get things away from that topic.

"Harry Potter said that Dobby could go to school, sir, and meet Harry Potter's friends," the little elf explained as he looked down at the floor as if wondering if he'd done something wrong.

"Oh, right," he said embarrassedly before introducing him to the other boys.

"How'd you get here?" Ron asked when he was done.

"Dobby was locked in a trunk," Dobby said as if the best way to travel.

"See? I told you we could sneak him in," he said to Harry.

"Yeah, but I still need to ask Professor McGonagall about him," Harry replied, as Ron went to his bedside table to give Scabbers a treat.

"Hermione's been a bad influence on you," Ron said in what might've passed for a friendly jibe.

Coming up with an idea to make Dobby's stay there memorable, even if it might only be for one night, Harry went back to his things. He took out his books and clothes for in the morning and stripped off the large winter comforter from his bed before stuffing it in the trunk.

"Here you go, Dobby," he said when he was done. "You can stay with us tonight and I can see to something more permanent tomorrow."

"He's got such little feet," Dean observed as Dobby clambered into his makeshift bed.

"You don't have any Lockhart books?" Seamus asked as he saw how small his stack was. "Wish I didn't, but me mam's a fan."

"I don't want anything to do with him," Harry said as he finished getting ready for bed.

"He doesn't want the competition," the boy said to Dean with a sly grin.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked curiously.

Instead of replying, Seamus just chuckled at something.

"What?" Harry asked.

"It's nothing," Dean said definitively. "Just some lame joke of Seamus's."

"I wouldn't call 'em nothing," the boy said defensively. "I've seen 'em myself."

"Seen what?" Harry asked despite Ron's look warning him he shouldn't.

Dean looked between him and Seamus before responding.

"Is it true you've got romance novels about you?"

Instantly he regretted coming back to school. If there was something worse for people to think of him as, Harry didn't know what it could be.

.o0O0o.

The poor and mournful servant of the Greater Good gazed at the old newspaper picture of the bespectacled boy with no little sense of lament. How heartbreaking it was to see just how far young Harry had gone from the Light of the Greater Good in such a short time! Tears welled in his eyes as Albus thought back to how being surrounded by the warmth and love of a good family should have brought out only the best qualities that Harry possessed and how it should've made him all the more prepared to follow the path given to him by the Greater Good.

How sad it was that it was not to be! Something about it must have gone horribly wrong. Had he failed to do something the Greater Good had wanted him to do? Had he missed something that he shouldn't have missed? Had there been some secret act done in darkness that corrupted Harry so thoroughly?

Albus could well remember the pang he'd felt in his heart when he'd realized Harry had only agreed to partially help the Weasleys so long as he'd obtained something in return. He had never thought such an act could've turned him from the Light so much, but now, he knew it was true. Harry was falling under the sway of the same Darker power that plagued the Light of the Greater Good and stymied its work in the Wizengamot.

What other way was there to explain what had happened tonight besides that? Why would such a kind and selfless boy as he have wished to do him violent harm when all he'd done was offer him the chance to alleviate the hardships the school faced? What had made poor Harry feel it so forcefully that Albus then had to feel it so keenly from fifty feet away?

If Harry was having such violent thoughts against him – even if he only wanted him to die without ever doing the deed himself – then that Darker power may have already gained too much of an influence on him for him to ever do what must be done for the Greater Good. But surely the Greater Good wouldn't keep him in his downtrodden place if there weren't still hope that he might reach the boy in the future, would it? Surely, the Darker power that had led so many others astray from the Light wouldn't claim young Harry as well, would it?

'No, not him, please!' Albus pleaded as he slumped to his bedchamber's floor, his tears running down his face like rivers. 'Please say that this is not your will – not young Harry! Please don't let the Dark power take him the way it took Tom Riddle. Don't let his Darkness taint young Harry, I beg of you! Please tell me that he might still be saved!'

How long he sat there crying and begging, beseeching the Greater Good for further knowledge or an act of intercession, Albus didn't know. The Light of the Greater Good, as always, stood tantalizingly out of reach. Omnipresent but intangible, all-knowing but incomprehensible, the will of the Greater Good was above the petty concerns of Albus Dumbledore.

He had to accept that his was a small and limited mind. Try as he might, it was impossible for him to fathom the depths of the Greater Good's actions or to contemplate the breath of its scope. The Good was like an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference was nowhere; nothing was outside its bounds, for everything was at its heart.

Who was Albus Dumbledore compared to that? It was not his position to guide or direct anyone now and would not be so again until the Greater Good proclaimed it so. It must be enough for him to endure this time in silent watchfulness, so that he might better learn the ways of the Greater Good and to be its servant in the ways it allowed; to do otherwise was hubris and folly.

It could be that what the Greater Good had planned for young Harry was not for him to be an agent of Love, as he'd always thought he'd be, but to let that Darker power have dominion over him and use him as an agent of Strife. The Strife that Harry caused could then be used overcome the Strife of Voldemort, only for him to be overcome by Love in turn. It could likewise be that young Harry's destiny was to fall into Strife, but be redeemed by Love, and to use that tempered spirit to serve as Voldemort's undoing, as had happened with Severus.

Albus had not wanted either of those paths for young Harry, but what he wanted didn't matter.

His job was to watch, and wait, and hope.

And so he would.

.o0O0o.

AN: With the philosophically religious way Albus has of looking at the world, he seems to be drawing a bit on Nicholas of Cusa, a thirteenth century German philosopher, theologian, and mystic, and Empedocles, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from the fifth century BCE, in order to grapple with what's going on. I knew that he'd have a philosophical basis for what he does, I just never thought it'd be like this. I guess it's a good thing for a writer to be open to being surprised by what they write, but it can get pretty scary in that man's mind.

On a lighter note, you may've noticed Harry and Hermione describing the taste of the potion they took in different ways; that's actually intentional. After all, if amortentia can smell differently based on who smells it, who's to say things can't taste differently? Did you notice how Hermione described the potions she took and what it might link back to in the real world? I won't spoil it by telling you but I may refer to it in the next chapter title.

And speaking of chapter titles, with the last four chapters covering the trip to Hogwarts, I used the opportunity to run the titles together like I did during the Wizengamot and Flamel Tower confrontation. I thought it'd be a subtle way to underscore the coming of age nature of the journey but in case you missed it they were: "A Voyage Into the Unknown," is "A Step Forward," "Into a New World," "Where We Find Ourselves." Cheesy, I know, but fitting nonetheless.

Now, I'm not usually one to publicly address what's said in reviews where everyone can see it. I think that's best done in via PMs because I don't like the 'dog pile' effect that can happen when someone in my position points out something. That said, I think it's an important issue to bring up because it underscores just how important the things can be, even when what you're talking about happened a long time ago.

To give what the Guest said its full context, here's the entire thing:

'Maybe I'm misunderstanding but it sounds like the whole thing Pince is making a big deal about is the date Hogwarts was founded being off by 50 years or so a thousand years ago. Big deal. It would at least be worth some brownie points as a historian I'm sure, but I don't see how it is the earth shattering revision of magical history that she seems to make it sound.'

What you're misunderstanding, dear Guest, is that the problem Pince is trying to fix isn't the date Hogwarts was founded on, that's incidental, the problem is the wider disregard for their actual history and people's entrenched desire to keep their history as a distorted mockery of what it should be. Getting the factual date of the Founding wrong would be like someone saying, 'George W. Bush was sworn in as President of the United States in 1951,' it's wrong but that could be a typo and have nothing to do with anything else. What Madam Pince is fighting against would be more along the lines of an entire country insisting that this is true: 'George W. Bush was sworn in as President of the United States in 1951, beginning the War on Terror by dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki while uttering the words, "Speak softly and carry a big stick."'

As you can see, the date is probably the part that's the least wrong since everything the sentence is built upon really did happen within 50 years of 1951, but it's still wrong since none of what's said actually happened the way it's presented. Figuring out the actual date of the Founding would be like discovering proof that GWB was really sworn into office in 2001, not 1951. It'd be the first piece of the puzzle to prove that everything they thought they knew was a fabrication and a key thing to know if what you're going for is reconstructing what happened in his administration, and that really would be an earth-shattering revision compared to what they previously thought it was.

Anyway, that's about enough of that.

Edit to AN, 11/14: The French Dark Lord has pointed out that there's a canonical fourth person in Fred & George's year named Kenneth Towler, so I've removed the filler OC that I wasn't going to do anything with and replaced him with that. ALL HAIL THE FRENCH DARK LORD!

As always, thanks for reading.